When my mother talks about my grandmother she constantly comes back to certain topics. My grandmother's fried chicken. Her anti-Vietnam activism. The fact that she raised nine children, three of whom had Down's Syndrome. That Grandma taught herself to walk on her prosthetic leg when the doctors told her she would never walk again. That she went back to school and earned her nursing degree in her 40s.
Grandma was one tough lady.
More than any of these things, my mom talks about my grandmother's love of music. She had, it seems, a natural ability to hear a song once and then to play it on any number of instruments. Her favorites music was either country (Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Slim Whitman) or folk songs/hymns (Amazing Grace, Red River Valley). I inherited a love for the same music from her, but unfortunately her natural ability to carry a tune wasn't passed on to either my mom, my brothers, or me.
Grandma died while I was still very young, and I remember very little about her. There are a few fragmented memories of her reading to me, or puttering around her house in Milwaukee--smoking and talking to my Granddad. I remember banging on the piano that was in her living room and a few moments when she sat down with me to try to turn my cacophonous banging into something with a little more substance.
It wasn't until I was in college that a memory came floating back to me. I'm not even sure if it's a real memory or something pieced together from how I think things might have been. My mom was riding in the back of my car reading a copy of Garrison Keillior's Good Poems for Hard Times. She came across the lyrics for "Rye Whiskey" and asked me if I remembered Grandma singing it.
I do. I think.
Even if the memory I have is simply one that I've constructed, I treasure it beyond belief. The song reminds me of this incredible woman who died before I had the chance to know her.
It was the first song I learned
when I was still very young. Sitting next to Grandma's
rocker while she smoked cigarettes and played her guitar.
Jesus Walked that Lonesome Valley, Amazing Grace,
Red River Valley, How Can I keep from Singing?
These came later, around the same time I realized
what Rye Whiskey was and why Grandma always sounded so sad
when she sang about it.